A clear message

January 30, 2007

Afederal judge's decision last week to strike down a Baltimore County zoning amendment that was designed to block the proposed Sparrows Point liquefied natural gas terminal was a setback for the project's opponents, but probably - and appropriately so - only a minor one.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett ruled that the county can't enforce a zoning change preventing an LNG terminal from being built within five miles of a home because an independent federal agency, and not the county, has final authority over where such a facility can be built.

While the LNG terminal proposed by AES Corp. is absolutely wrong for the former shipyard, it's hard to argue with Judge Bennett's legal reasoning. Under a 2005 law passed by Congress, local governments can't, through spot zoning, derail a federal process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission decides where LNG terminals can be built, and the Sparrows Point proposal is one of about 40 proposed facilities either under review by the commission or at least being discussed.

But a pre-existing state environmental law may be another matter. As Judge Bennett noted in his opinion, the 2005 law was meant to "prevent states from imposing additional restrictions on the siting of LNG facilities." What if the state's well-established Chesapeake Bay Critical Areas Law restricting waterfront development applied to the proposed Sparrows Point LNG terminal and pipeline? That's essentially what legislation introduced this month to the Baltimore County Council - and scheduled to be discussed in a work session today - is intended to accomplish.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a former judge, thinks this approach may stand a better chance in the courts. But even if it doesn't, federal regulators and the project's proponents must recognize that local neighbors, the county and the state do not want an LNG plant at Sparrows Point and that should factor in FERC's review. What's more, Gov. Martin O'Malley is firmly against the plant.

Last week, the acting Maryland transportation secretary, John D. Porcari, told reporters from The Sun that not only is he opposed to the AES proposal (his concerns range from the environmental risk posed by the needed dredging to how LNG deliveries would periodically interrupt Chesapeake Bay shipping traffic) but he'd like to buy the property for future use by the port of Baltimore. That's an idea worth exploring. The port needs room to expand, the community could use desirable port-related jobs and an LNG terminal needs a more sensible location.

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